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It’s Margaret Atwood’s dystopian future, and we’re just living in it

Man Booker Prize 2003 Awards Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Which Margaret Atwood dystopia do you want to live in? If we’re very lucky, soon you won’t have to choose.

The author's most famous dystopia is the one in The Handmaid’s Tale, which Hulu will soon be adapting into a series starring Elisabeth Moss. The novel imagines a world in which the value of North American women has been reduced to their reproductive capacities and their bodies are owned by men. The protagonist is known to us only as "Offred," because she is the handmaid (read: designated birthing receptacle) "of Fred."

The world of The Handmaid’s Tale been invoked many, many times throughout the current election cycle as the world we are clearly hurtling toward. The most notable instance came after Donald Trump declared a need for "some form of punishment" for women who seek abortions, an idea that recalls the uncomfortably visceral Handmaid’s Tale scene in which a woman confesses she sought an abortion after being raped. As punishment, the woman is surrounded by a group of women chanting, "Your fault, it was your fault you were raped," until she breaks down.

The comparisons flew thick and fast.

"In Trump’s comments, there is an echo of the logic that drives Margaret Atwood’s dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale," wrote the New Statesman. Under a Trump regime, said Daily Show creator Lizz Winstead, "we would look at The Handmaid’s Tale like Mad magazine." "I #WontBePunished for believing "The Handmaid's Tale" is a cautionary story, not a playbook," wrote Scott Wooledge on Twitter.

But a news development this week brings us closer to one of Atwood’s other dystopias — the one in her MaddAddam trilogy.

At UC Davis, the Guardian reports, researchers have created chimeric embryos that carry both human stem cells and pig DNA. The idea is that these embryos could be used to create pigs that would grow human organs, which could then be used as a source for lifesaving organ transplants.

Atwood was on top of this idea back in 2004 when she published Oryx and Crake, the first volume in the MaddAddam series. Where The Handmaid’s Tale focuses almost entirely on misogyny as the driving force of dystopia, MaddAddam imagines multiple interconnected causes — including climate change, income inequality, religious evangelism, and scientific hubris.

In Oryx and Crake, the creepiest manifestation of that hubris is the pigoon. "The goal of the pigoon project," Atwood writes, "was to grow an assortment of foolproof human-tissue organs in a transgenic knockout pig host — organs that would transplant smoothly and avoid rejections." Pigoons are used to grow organs for wealthy people who need them, for as long as the animals can be kept alive; the pigoons are then discarded for purposes unknown. Everyone is queasily disinclined to eat pigoon meat — what if there are human cells in there? — but pretty sure most of the pork they buy is secretly pigoon anyway.

Ultimately, the system backfires. After the human race is decimated by a biological weapon, the pigoons become some of their most dangerous predators, running down lone human survivors and devouring them. "A brainy and omnivorous animal, the pigoon," Atwood’s narrator says. "Some of them may even have human neocortex tissue growing in their crafty, wicked heads."

The UC Davis researchers have been careful to note that their human/pig hybrids won’t have human brains.

Pablo Ross, the reproductive biologist leading the research, insists there is a "very low potential for a human brain to grow."

He told the Guardian: "Our hope is that this pig embryo will develop normally but the pancreas will be made almost exclusively out of human cells and could be compatible with a patient for transplantation."

Still, anyone who read Oryx and Crake can’t help but shudder with recognition reading the story.

Ironically, as more and more of Atwood’s dire dystopian predictions enter the realm of real-world possibility, the woman herself seems more optimistic than ever about the future. In 2014, she filed away an unpublished book in an art project known as the "Future Library." It will remain in the library, unread, until 2114, when it will be removed from its archival box and printed for readers to consume.

For an author who has written more than one apocalypse in her career — and whose apocalyptic visions are growing ever more plausible — it’s a hopeful move. It suggests that in 2114, there will still be literate human beings around to read her work.

Even if they’re killed by monstrous pig/human hybrids immediately afterward.

Correction: An earlier version of this article described Hulu's forthcoming Handmaid's Tale as a miniseries. It is actually a series.

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